| 5.7°C Belfast

Alban Maginness

Why unionists need to start talks about life after Brexit with politicians in the Republic

Alban Maginess

The general election on February 8 gives the DUP and UUP opportunity to explore greater cross-border co-operation, argues Alban Maginness


Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael (pictured) and Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail are going to the polls

Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael (pictured) and Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail are going to the polls

Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael (pictured) and Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail are going to the polls

In 1969 Terence O'Neill, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and a much underrated - but in retrospect a far-seeing unionist politician - called a snap election for February 24. Ian Paisley, then a much underrated street agitator, derisively quipped: "Only a snowman would have called such an election."

Without having to endure such ridicule, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has just called an election for Saturday, February 8. For many people living here the general election called by the Fine Gael leader is of minor interest, or even indifference, but that is a mistake. For as with the whole Brexit debate, what happens south of the border is now very relevant to our own future, both economically and politically.

Unionist politicians should be particularly interested in what happens as the make-up of the next Irish Government is important to politics here. Members of the DUP and the Ulster Unionists should be making tracks to Dublin to try to engage with and understand future plans of their southern counterparts. For them this should be an exercise in pragmatism, aimed at addressing the big economic challenges that face us post-Brexit. All of this can be done without prejudice to their unionist principles and sense of identity.

They should also be in Dublin to actively try to shape the policies of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail prior to the formation of the next Government in order to determine the direction of the Republic in this uncharted post-Brexit era. This new era will be one in which greater inter-dependence and active cooperation will be a major element between north and south.

Assembly Members of all parties should be mindful of the increasing need to forge closer practical social and economic cooperation between north and south, so as to maximise the benefit of our public services to the mutual advantage of both jurisdictions.

The example set by the health service, where there is direct sharing of facilities relating to cancer and infant cardiac treatment, is a sound practical basis upon which to build in a mutually advantageous way. But there are many other significant areas, such as a common Green energy and climate change strategy.

But the big ticket issue is what sort of political relationship between north and south will emerge after the election.

It is generally accepted that the current Fine Gael-led Government played a skilful and major role with the rest of the EU in combating the serious damage that Brexit could have caused if there had been a no-deal crashout.

Equally, it is acknowledged that the outgoing administration played a very constructive role in the negotiations leading up to the restoration of the Executive and Assembly.

Both Varadkar and Tanaiste Simon Coveney showed serious commitment to bringing the divided parties together in the north. In particular, Coveney painstakingly and patiently worked hard to bring about restoration.

But despite their evident success in handling Brexit and restoring the power-sharing Assembly, opinion polls over the past year make it clear that the two major parties are neck and neck.

Without doubt the election will see the emergence of a new coalition under either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail leadership. Who their coalition partners will be should be a matter of concern for the northern parties.

Thankfully, both major parties have excluded the possibility of either of them entering coalition with Sinn Fein. But however much a Sinn Fein coalition may be anathema south of the border, such a possibility cannot be completely ruled out if the political arithmetic favours Sinn Fein. But more likely is a coalition between one of the major parties and the Greens and/or a resurgent Labour Party.

Whatever happens is a vital concern for us, as an unstable or disinterested Government could do north-south relations damage.

A stable and imaginative Irish Government will help the power-sharing Executive bed down and develop closer and more constructive relations between the Assembly and Dail Eireann. Furthermore, it will allow the North-South Ministerial Council to start to work productively and become an engine to develop infrastructure, trade and investment throughout the island.

One happy aspect of the election is the overdue retirement of Gerry Adams as a TD. No longer will his baneful presence stalk Leinster House, although his influence will no doubt continue to haunt Sinn Fein north of the border.

Maybe the man who justified physical force republicanism, which caused so much grief and pain in the north, can reflect on his legacy, which produced even greater division in Ireland and set back the unity of the Irish people by at least two generations, if not longer.

Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.

Already have an account?

Belfast Telegraph